Difficult news: Curious Fictions will be closing its doors August 27. More details »
From the author: A member of a cult with unconventional modes of worship finds herself at a crossroads.
Tanta had two jobs.
During the day she sold train tickets to glazed commuters coming and going through Nunsin Street Station. The tickets were pink rectangles, sharp enough that their papercuts collected on her fingers, crisscrossing, subway maps in miniature.
At night she was the officiant for the icebox.
Daydreaming in front of the glare of the half-antique train reservations screen, Tanta imagined her sensitive fingertips wedging under the heavy lid of the icebox, the quick relief of the frosted inside as her fingers slid in. She thought about this when she sold returns to Bergagio, off-peak day tickets to Little Atene, explained the policy about bicycles on trains. The icebox was on her mind a lot, like a lover or a visual mantra.
Tanta was nineteen that summer. She was still scared of the trains. Every time one pulled into a platform, she lucidly saw it dragging her underneath its chrome whooshing bulk in a mechanical vortex. Underneath, complete dark, and a piercing wail--hers, and that of vicious, rushing machinery.
Left arm: used 65 times
At nineteen, she no longer hated her station service uniform. She felt mature enough for the synthetic brown cardigan that warped and shrunk a new way every time she washed it. After her nineteenth birthday, she seldom tugged down at the royal purple skirt that stopped right above the knee. She felt less abuse to her modesty. In the mirror, the gauzy purple neckerchief even seemed to frame kindly the comma of her nose, asymmetric since she’d caught a basketball with her face one summer during a three-on-three game with her cousins.
The ordained significance of the icebox--to an outsider, just an unmarked chest freezer in the basement--had been little more than a point of curiosity back then. When her mother had opened it for a bag of ice for young Tanta’s broken nose, Tanta had peeked within at the bundles of ceremonial shawls glazed with flecks of ice. The carefully wrapped lumps were packed in tight to about half the height of the chest. For a long time Tanta imagined the icebox a frozen, quilted, secret bed, and the illicit thought of crawling into it would make her shiver.
When Tanta’s mother had hopped to her daughter’s side with the agility of years on one leg to press the hard, cold bag of ice against her nose, Tanta shouted in pain, and her mother had laughed.
“Just a small test. To prepare for the big one ahead.” She held Tanta’s sweaty head tight against the ice pack. “A bumped nose is not a reason for tears.”
Ears: usage immeasurable. Noisy in here. Good or bad?
On nights off from work, Tanta performed the rituals of the icebox.
She did not take the train home, though it was the most convenient route. She was even more prone to panic attacks on board than on the platform. She wove a bicycle through commuter traffic to arrive at her treelined street with its solemn owlish streetlamps.
Tonight, changing into less restrictive attire and shouldering the embroidered silk mantle of an officiant, Tanta fetched a candle and matchbox from the hall cabinet. After a brief visit to the warm, steamy kitchen to greet her mother and father, she headed for the basement. On the way down she lit the candle, the wobbly flame righting itself on the wick and blazing strong. It revealed carpeted stairs that creaked under Tanta’s bare feet.
Left leg: 34. Right leg: 34 35 (+ stretching on tiptoes to reach binder on shelf above printer)
In the basement, the icebox purred solemnly. Tonight was the Warden's Ritual, the simplest and most difficult. Tanta’s task was to sit alongside the icebox in vigil. She had been awake since dawn, but it would pollute the sanctity of the Warden's Ritual if her eyes drooped or her mind dissolved into fantasies in the dim room.
Towards midnight, at the end of her watch, Tanta opened the icebox.
Her fingers with their papercut canals stung a little less. By candlelight, frosted air looked like fake mist on a theatre set. The swaddled bumps within could have been set props, a Styrofoam and felt mountain range. Tanta lifted one up, held it in the notch of her elbow like a baby. Tenderly she uttered the sing-song Rites of the Amputee.
She adjusted the rich cloth veined with gold thread and dusted off the ice powder to view the inscribed name, then returned the bundle to the dark indent where it belonged.
Coming up the stairs, Tanta forced herself to inspect every step she took with her feet, the relish of toes spreading, adjustments of bone as her soles accepted the burden of her weight.
Toes: 10 x daily steps taken (8000 steps, on average). But divided by the length of my middle toe, for the smallness of their work.
Double- and triple-file queues for sandwiches and cigarettes. A perfumed breeze. Utility workers in neon, drilling. Cyclists in brighter neon. This was the midday bustle of Nunsin Street. Tanta had lunch plans, was careful to wear her black trenchcoat for modesty, but untrapped a flair of neckerchief for the touch of color.
She found the impossibly busy patio and to her relief spied Guillermo already stationed at a table for two. The tabletop was a bare desert island in the roiling of lunch hour; on it stood an espresso cup already drained. Tanta made her way towards the Guillermo oasis, pulled out a chair, sat down with a smile.
“Hi--” a waitress had appeared with a menu for her, “--I’ll have the mozzarella sandwich and a water,” she said, refusing the laminated card.
“How are you, Gui?” Tanta asked, though he looked as well as he always did. He had the glow of the very good-looking and self-assured, which mattered everywhere, even among their people who despised showiness.
On the face of it, Guillermo dressed as modestly as Tanta, dark sweater, simple slacks. No jewelry but for a tiny threaded copper icon around his strong wrist. It was stamped with a likeness of Antonietta Meo, the Little Matron, first of their people, who had lost her leg to disease aged five, and declared it ballast shed to lighten her ascent to Heaven. The memento gleamed, half-concealed by Guillermo's sleeve.
On him, even such a small ostentation of faith was magnetic, the well-kempt beard made unique by the natural whorls and tracks of hair on his cheeks, rich brown fringe that tickled his brow, eyes an uncommon shade of amber. Tanta thought about his small wife, smaller now that both her arms were gone at the elbows, but also purer.
She tried not to let her eyes linger on Gui's own full arms where they rested on the tabletop. He had not made his sacrifice yet, though he, like Tanta, was of an age to do so.
He leaned in.
“Tanta, listen. We've known each other since before we could walk, right?”
Tanta watched him intently, even as the waitress made a racket setting down her order.
"Since Rosa’s sacrifice... I've been suffering a crisis of faith," he said. Tanta felt the unbidden downturn of her mouth.
“No--listen to me.” Gui’s cheeks flushed red above the horizon of his beard. “I've been thinking about it a lot. About giving of myself. I stay awake half the night watching Rosa sleep propped against her pillow with elbows that don't continue into arms.”
He dragged his espresso cup aside so he could hunch further in. “I just miss holding her hand.”
Tanta's eyes prickled and her forehead felt like the surface of a balloon blown up too big. She didn't know if it was the awful admission or the thought of Guillermo’s warmth for Rosa, but she viciously wished she was still sitting behind her perspex shield, punching in commuter trips, ripping fresh tickets out of the printer.
The silence grew. “You know you'll hold her hand again with God,” Tanta ventured. Her voice sounded thready and pathetic in her ears.
Gui looked stricken, as though his breathing had become jammed. He exhaled, and exhaled again.
Tanta tried for the tone of an officiant. “I will hold her hand--her hands--for you, if you wish. And I can remind you what it’s like, until you’re reunited whole.”
Guillermo rapped fingers on the edge of the coffee saucer, and Tanta thought he would bolt off, back to his desk in a tall office building with shuttered venetian blinds and a doorman.
“I almost feel disgusted at--at us,” he whispered. His eyes danced across her face then away. “I think of your icebox and its treasures. Pieces of our flesh and our skeletons and…I cannot see any god in it.”
He was her oldest friend. They had been born twelve days apart to mothers who were best friends. Their mothers had given their sacrifices on the same day, both choosing their right legs. Tanta made sure her mother's limb and Auntie Cresa's nestled side by side in the icebox. She gave prayers over them often. But she could not let Gui say these words in her presence. Hearing them in silence was no better than accepting them.
“You’re leaving,” Gui said, when he saw her wrapping her sandwich in a napkin. "Come on Tanta, please.
“Don't tell me you've never thought about the madness of it? Can you imagine the voluntary thing you will do to your body? The horror of it? Waking up from the anesthetic less than you were? Tell me you haven’t considered refusing. Look at me and tell me you want to be amputated. I know you better than anybody does.”
She found herself hurrying at his dangerous words, horrified, sure that diners at the neighbouring tables would connect the dots and stare as two so-called cultheads argued and exposed their clandestine secrets. By the last appeal, her fingers were fumbling uselessly in search of the zipper on her handbag. She would write that down: fingers, next to useless when you really needed them to come through.
“Give my kisses to Rosa, Guillermo. I'll see you soon,” she managed in a sputtering attempt at a dignified exit.
The sandwich sat cold in its greasy napkin until she tossed it in the paper waste bin on her way out of the office that evening. She had not been able to bring herself to eat.
Left arm: 30, if focused on using right arm instead. Maybe I just do it. And learn to use the rest of me 30 times more.
Tanta had the day off on Thursdays. She had a habit of heading down to the trainyard, where engineers tinkered in the undercarriages of the city's light locomotives, topped up paint jobs until they were shiny as apple skins.
The trainyard trips were rehabilitative: Tanta had theorized that the best remedy for her phobia might actually be to watch trains at rest, when they looked solemn and immovable and gave off a perfume of greased metal. As a station service officer, she had access to restricted parts of the trainyard. Her favorite perch was on an old shipping container, reached with a boost from one or another bemused maintenance worker.
The cranking, hammering, straining metal sounds made Tanta feel vigilant, oxygenated. It was a mild fight or flight response, in this case useful, because she needed to be alert enough to think. Hard.
She had expected she would mainly need to think about Gui, but found her thoughts turning to Antonietta Meo, Little Matron, saint to her people. Tanta wondered what the little girl, whose forehead had surely been touched by God's hand, must have privately thought when she woke up without her leg, and felt in her body the encroachment of her coming death.
The Little Matron had only been five years old--Tanta was nearly twenty, with a heart leaking courage and awkward longings buzzing in her like a trapped hornet, stinging every so often. It made her feel old and tired.
Then Tanta began to think seriously about which part of her body it would be.
Her mother had chosen to give a leg at the knee. Her father had had his eyes removed. They had been beautiful eyes, green and deep as crystallized ferns. It was a rare choice of sacrifice, so they were the smallest bundle in the icebox now. Tanta kept them in the far left corner, where the temperature seemed steadiest and the other bundles did not weigh down on those delicate globes of her father's body. She prayed that he would have better than perfect vision in Heaven, he who had always been sidelined by his eyesight as a young man. Now his eyesight was with God.
The teachings said the purest time to give a sacrifice was before the age of twenty-one, while the skin, muscle, and bone was still fresh, and before the mind had fully satiated its indulgence in the wholeness of the body.
There were some who waited longer than that. Gui's brother Antonio had been twenty-seven when he had finally lightened himself of his ears (another small package in the icebox). It had been a relief to Auntie Cresa, Tanta knew from listening to hushed conversations at the kitchen table.
Maybe I just do it.
That night, lifting the lid of the icebox, Tanta carried a weight in her chest that weakened her arms. The lid came free with the sound of giant lips smacking together. Glazed ice crackled delicately in the warm air.
Tanta took four frozen bundles from the icebox and placed them on a mantle spread across the floor like a picnic blanket. Then she uncapped a jar smelling of healing herbs; aloe and thyme. The grainy paste inside was made to a guarded recipe by children on their tenth birthdays in tribute to the Little Matron Antonietta Meo. It was a moisturizing rub that kept long-frozen flesh supple and hale, and it carried the blessings and prayers of the children and all the people.
The first bundle she unwrapped was Paola Camille’s left foot.
Carefully, Tanta brushed the ice from the neat, trimmed toenails, the cracking sole, the straight wound through meat and bone made by the ritual cleaver.
With moisturizing paste coating her palms, Tanta got to work on Paola’s limb. Her fingers got colder and number until it seemed two lifeless hands caressed one lifeless foot. She had not performed this duty on Paola’s foot in over a month. The frozen body part absorbed two palmfuls of the children’s paste, and seemed denser and heftier hearing Tanta’s whispered prayers. Tanta imagined one day massaging her own detached foot, sitting cross-legged on the floor, one of her legs ending short at the ankle.
After Paola Camille, Tanta unrolled Antonio’s ears from their shawl. Guillermo had the same ears as his older brother, but they did not share a general resemblance. Since the lightening, Antonio had grown a beard, wore his frizzy hair longer to hide the puckered crescents of his wounds. It was a quick task to treat the ears, delicate like seashells split in half.
After she had been through her duties for the night, Tanta found herself pausing at the door to her parents’ room. They were asleep, both early risers.
She surprised herself by opening the door. “Mama, papa,” Tanta whispered. Her father woke up first, his senses sharpened to her presence in the dark.
“Tanta? What’s the matter so late?”
“Papa, wake mama,” she said, then surprised herself even further: “I think I have decided. I have decided my sacrifice.”
She heard her father waking her mother gently. “Our girl has decided. About her sacrifice!” Tanta’s mother, half asleep, began to murmur fervent thanks to Antonietta Meo, and the disheveled pair were soon robed and slippered and urging Tanta into the kitchen. Tanta was acutely aware of how both her parents brushed fingers along the wallpaper, her mother for balance as she hopped, her father steadying his sightless path.
Soon lights were blazing in the reawakened house. Hot spiced applesauce bubbled on the stove and a sweet celebration wine had been opened and measured out in mugs.
“Tell us your decision, God’s child,” her sentimental father said.
Tanta observed her own steady resolve as if from a distance. “I will give my left arm at the elbow that I may have its strength redoubled in Heaven.”
A joyous whoop went up from her parents. Her mother began to weep, overwhelmed, while her father clinked mugs with Tanta and drank down his wine.
“It’s a blessing, Arturo. Our only child has grown up in the image of Antonietta Meo. She has tended the icebox since reaching womanhood, and now she’s ready for her sacrifice. A rich blessing, our daughter.”
“It is the duty of every one of us to make a sacrifice,” Tanta demurred. The wine warmed her face. She felt very brave.
“Yes, of course, it is God’s wish, but not all parents are so lucky. Poor Cresa. Poor, poor Cresa.” The wrinkles deepened instantly on her mother’s face, a cloud obscuring the bright sun.
“Poor Cresa has loved her sons as much as she loves her faith, but she was not so lucky. The elder, Antonio, so reluctant, and finally, he lightens himself of his ears. Arturo--do not repeat this--but that’s not a true lightening. He still hears and carries no burden. His only difficulty is that he cannot keep sunglasses on his face!”
“Mama! Cresa is your friend. Do not speak ill of her family--”
“No, no, Tanta, I am not speaking ill of her at all. It’s just that my heart is heavy for her sorrow. Antonio... and now the younger boy, Guillermo, has shown his rebellious nature. We’d hoped that joining him to Rosa, whose faith burns so wild...”
Tanta’s ears rang with panic. “Rebellious? What has Guillermo done?”
“He only grumbles, refuses to speak of his sacrifice,” her mother lowered her tone, “Refuses to give the prayers, sometimes.”
Her father tsked loudly. “Please. This is about Tanta’s decision to purify herself. Don’t speak of such things now, my darling.” He turned to the stove to pour applesauce into small bowls, then dialed the radio to the folklore station. Mirth rose to the roof.
I have decided it will be my left arm. From now on, instead of counting its uses, I will list ways to be without it.
The next two weeks were a parody of normalcy. Tanta did not speak again of her upcoming sacrifice, but now that she had formally declared her intention to lighten herself of her left arm, she knew preparations were being made in the background to her life.
Her mother had contacted their people’s surgeon, who would administer the anesthetic, wield the ritual cleaver, and clean and sterilize the body part afterwards. Tanta came home one Tuesday to find him having coffee with her father. The surgeon stood to acknowledge her, and after she cupped his hand with both of hers in the traditional handshake, he clasped her chosen forearm, kneading his thumb and fleshy fingers against bone and muscle as if familiarizing himself with his upcoming charge.
1: Cradle icebox bundles against the chest with upper part of left arm. Use the right hand to perform officiant’s duties.
At family gatherings and at church, conversations dropped to silence when she passed, and her people smiled deep as wells when they met her eye. Tanta tried not to revel in the contradictory joys of being sanctified by her declaration, but as-yet unrelieved of her sacrifice. It was a temporary state. It held no harmony, no deep truth.
2: Do not set down teacup on the left side of desk.
Work at the train station went on unaltered, being much bigger than Tanta, as big as the circulatory needs of the city.
Tanta had to resist the temptation to confess the coming milestone of her life to the other station officers at Nunsin Street. One day she almost confided in Pauly, the kindly custodian, when he asked her how she was doing. Apart from the occasional tabloid expose, her people kept a low profile. No one who did not need to know about them was trusted with the details of their practices and beliefs. Amputations were explained away with vague gestures at diseased veins, septic blood, car accidents. Even so, Tanta would have told Pauly everything, if not for the incredulous questions she was sure he would have--that she wasn’t sure she could answer.
3: Lower all shelves in the kitchen. Hang a long hook in the bathroom, to tumble toilet paper rolls down from rafter storage.
The date for her sacrifice was chosen to fall on an important holiday--the Little Matron’s birthday--and Tanta began a month-long countdown.
Some days she counted the pages of her desk calendar with anticipation, imagining the purity of her lighter self, breeze and sunlight almost singing through her. Some days it seemed unbelievable. She would roll up her sleeve and examine her elbow from every angle. She would stick her nose right up to her knuckle joints and pretend her fingerprints were labyrinths to get lost in.
Mostly, though, she was nervous about the pain and the shape of the world, afterwards. Despite her embarrassment, she forced herself to examine her nude body after every shower. Her intelligence knew that it was incomplete, unlightened, but her animal brain registered none of that. It saw vitality and youth. It saw health. Tanta worked assiduously to hold a rational frame to the nerves that buzzed at low frequency almost all the time now. She was free of them only when she slept.
Asleep, she found comfort and peace, except for the small, subdued dreams of Gui. These she woke to like an alarm, her faith stalwart against where they might lead.
4: When hugging mama and papa, grab left elbow with right hand for a tighter grasp.
A week before the chosen day, Tanta saw a familiar face in the queue for her ticket desk. She served two confused tourists with an increasing tremble in her voice and hands.
Gui approached the perspex screen, spoke into the microphone.
“Hi Tanta,” he began awkwardly. He cleared his throat as if preparing to recite lines from memory. “I am leaving forever. I am going somewhere new. Somewhere everything is new, all the rules are different. Somewhere no one knows us or what we do.” His voice was far away and electronic through the microphone.
“Come down to the platform with me, please.”
Tanta shook her head, but couldn’t shift her eyes from Gui’s beautiful face.
“My mother told me about your decision. But I cannot believe you want this. Listen,” he put a hand on the perspex, smudging it. “I have not told Rosa. I cannot. Her mind is full of things I do not understand. Listen, I know, I know how you feel. About me.” Tanta’s entire body lurched upside-down on an invisible rollercoaster.
“Come down to the platform just for a few minutes, please.”
5: Maybe I just do it. Maybe I just learn to live that way. Maybe I just do it.
Flipping the ‘Position Closed’ sign, Tanta made for the staff door and exited onto the platform. Guillermo was there, shouldering a single piece of luggage. He lived as sparely as any of them.
He held out his right hand to her. She took it with her left. They were born twelve days apart, but they had never touched each other this way before. It made her queasy.
In the midafternoon commuter lull, Guillermo walked her to the edge of Platform Three.
He spoke quietly into the void shaped for a train. “There is a service in four minutes. It goes east and connects to another train that goes even farther east. That train connects to another, also headed east. I bet the world is really different, at the end of three eastbound connections.” He pressed her hand tight. “I have two tickets. Come with me.”
Tanta grasped for an eastern world with her and Guillermo in it, and her left arm whole. She thought of their healthy, vital bodies impossibly close, entangled, confusable. She thought about her mother and her father, the icebox purring for her in the basement, her officiant’s duties. She thought of Antonietta Meo measuring her as she stood on the platform with an apostate.
Still distant, their train squealed. Gui rubbed her palm with his thumb, reassuring her, or reassuring himself.
Overcome all fear.
Be close to Heaven.
Gently, Tanta pulled her hand free. Guillermo did not restrain her.
Her legs felt wooden; an amoeba of emotion colored her neck up to her ears. But Tanta knew what she had to do. She only had one chance, one trembling moment. If she didn’t act decisively, she would soon dissolve into something that wasn’t the self she knew, the way mama’s molasses instantly transmuted a pot of bubbling apple pulp.
When Tanta stopped at the lip of the platform away from other travellers and lowered herself down into the recess beside the track, Gui began to call her name, curious, then wild with terror.
Her timing was tuned to perfection. She had the vibrations of trains in her bones. Her instinct told her exactly how long she had left. Guillermo was running, others were running.
She extended her arm onto the track palm-down, flattened herself in the safety of the emergency crawlspace. She had thought often about the room for a body that that recess afforded. It was large enough to shelter a nineteen year old woman. The train approached, sounding a distress horn. Guillermo screamed wildly.
Tanta did not quake, her phobia rooted in her bowels, but dispelled from her heart. The metal beast would not flatten her. It would take only her left arm, at the elbow, and give back everything else.
This story originally appeared in Black Static.